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Conference planning

26 Oct 2011

Occasionally someone emails me to ask advice on planning a conference and I am happy to oblige. I got a particularly good set of questions this week and took some time writing detailed answers so I thought I would post them here in case they’re useful to someone.

Lead Time: How much lead time do I need to market the conference?

Generally, booking a venue is your long pole – the earlier you do it the better. Venues fill up so starting early gives you the best choice of dates and good leverage with the venue. I think 6+ months lead time for a conf is reasonable for marketing, anything less than 4 is pushing it.

Channels: In your experience what are the best channels for marketing your conference?

You have to think about where your desired attendees are and be there. For developers, the high value places are user groups, meetups, mailing lists, other confs, etc. If you hope to bring a lot of people locally, it helps to get contacts into local IT orgs and try to get an email out on internal mailing lists or to a manager with the funds to send people. Those last are hard to nail down, but can bring in groups. If you want to do actual advertising, I have found LinkedIn and Facebook both to be good because they can let you do highly specific targeting of georaphic areas, keywords, and titles (for LinkedIn) as well as leverage social networking aspects. I’ve tried Google ads w/o much success. You might also consider banner ads on key sites.

**Conference Venue: I’m assuming Hotel.

How has that experience been for you?

Do you get discounts for having people stay at the hotel?</p>

Food: Breakfast, Lunch. Provided by the Hotel I’m assuming.

What is your typical budget per attendee?</strong>

Hotels are great in that they do this kind of thing all the time. They can handle rooming, parking, catering meals, meeting rooms, and A/V. They suck in that they are boring and non-unique as a venue and expensive. All in all, I prefer to do more work and have a more unique experience elsewhere, but it is definitely more work. Doing confs in non-traditional venues can also be cheaper in some cases. Movie theaters are great for seating and a/v, but complicated in that the projector is in the projection booth. Performing arts type venues can be excellent, but they have generally just one venue so it’s harder to find one that has multiple locations for a multi-track conf.

Hotel contracts are usually structured with a room block at a conference room rate and a minimum catering spend. Generally, they will expect you to hit 80-85% of your room quota (and you have to pay for rooms if you are low) and a minimum catering spend of $x0,000. If you do that, they’ll waive the room rental fees. Alternately, if you can’t meet what they want for catering, they might charge you something for renting the rooms. When you look at catering, make sure to ask what their service charge/taxes will be and factor that into your food estimates. You’ll find the prices are outrageous, however keep in mind that they are really a proxy for the actual food + the people making it and serving it + the people setting up your conf rooms + etc etc. Generally food is your biggest single cost item – it was around $100k this year for Strange Loop.

When you talk to a hotel, they’ll want to know the number of people and rooms you expect for “general session” (where everyone is together) and breakouts (split apart). Negotiable items for hotel blocks often include parking rate and in-room wifi. Always ask for something more than they offer. :)

A/V varies per venue. Find out whether they are open to any vendor or have a required vendor (sometimes in-house). You’ll generally need a screen + projector + mic + sound. You might be able to skip mic + sound for rooms < 40 people. For programmers that might type on a computer, you really need lavalier mics, not handheld. These setups will generally run you $500-1000 per room and much more for a large room (multiple screens, etc). We worked a pretty good deal at Strange Loop this year but I think we still paid about $20k for A/V. The only way to plan any of this is to make a budget spreadsheet that starts from variables (# of days, # of attendees, # of speakers, etc) and outlines all expenses (both fixed and per-person) and incomes. Food is often your largest cost item (that one is per-person). A/V is often the next. **What is a good target for a first time conference as far as attendance goes?

Do you put a cap on it, or do you react as the numbers start coming in.**

It’s a black art. :) You have to have a target to work with the hotel to estimate room block size, catering, and room distribution during breakouts. It’s good to have a feel for your target and also what the hotel could do if things went really well and you could go over your target. If you have a variable-based budget, you can play with the variables to figure out what your break-even point is – you want that number to satisfy your hotel minimums and also be something you have good confidence in. For Strange Loop this year our target was 800 (ended up at 900) but I planned the budget for 700 and my break-even was somewhere below that.

For a first-time conference, I’d start small. Much better to have a first year that sells out and is small than to be in the red and have it be the last year as well. ;) If the first year goes well, you’ll have some money in the bank to reduce your overall risk the next year and give you more leeway.

Pricing – How do you figure out pricing? Do you find you already have a handle on the costs involved in hosting the event before you set conference pricing? Or do you react to costs via sponsorship?

If you build a variable-based budget, you can play with attendance and ticket prices to see what looks comfortable in context of the fixed and per-person costs. Do market analysis by looking at other confs like the one you’re creating (based on # of days, content, etc). Generally, I try not to depend too heavily on sponsorship because that’s in someone else’s control.

**Sponsors – How do you handle sponsorship?

What do you do to attract them (i.e. offer them stage-time, booths, sponsored events)

What compensation arrangements can I expect?

I think you had “sponsorship levels” can you explain how those worked?

**

Think about what sponsors want out of sponsorship – they want to find people to hire, sell a product, or increase brand awareness. Depending on what they want to get out of it, different aspects are valuable to them. The best way to learn more is to read a bunch of sponsorship prospectuses – you can find them on almost any conference web site.

As a small first-year conference, you’re a hard sell. The first Strange Loop (2009) had 300 attendees and I think we had about $16k in sponsorship.

Margins – What is your typical goal for margins (re: profit) on a conference?

As I’ve been doing this primarily because I enjoy it, my goal is not to maximize profit but to maximize attendee experience (although I like making a profit too). Planning for profits I have found most importantly to be a tool to reduce risk.

Insurance – Do you need special insurance at all? If so, what type(s)

You can buy event insurance. Some venues (usually concert hall type places) will require you to have a $1M liability policy which you can usually get for around $600. I did that once – usually the venue has their own policy if you’re at a hotel, etc. You can also buy event cancellation insurance which would help cover you in reimbursing people or your own expenses if say a volcano exploded or your venue flooded or whatever. I have not done that – instead I state a policy during registration for what to expect in that case.

Risk – I’m assuming the only real risk involved would be the loss of a deposit on the Venue should the conference fail to launch because of bad attendance? What is a typical percentage of non-refundable deposit the venues expect?

Deposit varies – it will be in your contract and you can negotiate it. Generally it’s $1000-5000. You can sometimes negotiate to pay it in installments (with later installments after you start selling tickets or sponsorships and have some cash flow).

To protect yourself personally, it is wise to incorporate or become a non-profit. Becoming a non-profit is much more complicated.

Format – What is your opinion on the following format: I would like to try having one ballroom-like room where everyone takes in the same sessions. I’d like to mix it up with sessions followed by panels to keep things interesting. If attendance really picks up and out-grows the ballroom, then the normal multi-room format might be better (or do I just say “we’re sold out!” and pivot for next year)?

Single-track is great because it’s simple, it encourages a shared context and “conversation” throughout the conference, and you can be very flexible with venue. It’s bad because every talk has to be at least a little interesting to attendees or they’re “wasting” an hour with no choices.

Pivoting may be tricky – you would need to a) have to have a venue where that’s possible, b) the venue has to have that space open and c) manage significant changes in speakers/schedule – usually speaker and schedule selection happens before attendance gets big so there are issues there. It is best to figure out what you plan to do and stick with it.

Speakers – Do you fly your speakers in? If so, do you pay their entire ticket or give a per diem (re: <= $500 for a ticket)?

Varies widely among conferences. As a speaker myself, I place a high value on appreciating the time speakers give in preparing for a talk and being at the conf and I think I can get higher-quality speakers by compensating them. So I pay for both hotel and US airfare (partial if international). The first year of Strange Loop I paid a flat stipend. In the US, you have to report a 1099 contracting form for anyone you pay >= $600 and you will have to pay a tax preparer to do that work. If you pay travel directly, you skirt around that. If you pay speaker travel, that will generally be your second biggest expense after food. I think speaker travel and hotel was ~$50k for Strange Loop this year. I use a travel agent to arrange travel and it is hugely worth it.

Do you do a call for papers, or select your speakers by hand and approach them (or both?)

I like to do both. Inviting speakers finds people that would never happen to see your CFP and helps you guide the kind of content you want. Doing an open call is a great way to market the conf and helps find people you would never think of.

If anyone out there has questions, I’m happy to answer them if I can.